To build a book that wouldn’t burn, Jeremy Martin and Doug Laxdal’s first idea was to use flame-retardant paper for the pages. Their graphic arts company ordered samples and got to work with a BIC lighter.
Alas, the pages burned – slowly, but still. They had to find an alternative. And they had less than three months to do it.
“When it comes to projects like this, you don’t have a second shot,” says Mr. Martin, production manager with the Gas Company.
The Toronto business was asked to craft a fireproof edition of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale as part of a protest against literary censorship. Sotheby’s is now in the process of auctioning off the book in New York to raise money for PEN America, which is leading the charge against book bans and what it calls educational gag orders. A recent report by the organization found, between July 1, 2021, and March 31, 1,586 instances of individual books being banned in 86 school districts in 26 states.
The campaign was unveiled at PEN’s gala Monday night, held under the enormous model of a blue whale at the Museum of Natural History in New York, with a video of Ms. Atwood taking a flamethrower to her unburnable book (actually, a prototype).
“Because powerful words can never be extinguished,” a caption on the screen said. People in the room cheered.
“The sight of Margaret Atwood wielding a blowtorch on screen just had everybody buzzing and riled up,” PEN America chief executive officer Suzanne Nossel told The Globe and Mail. “There’s just something about this concept of an unburnable book that I think captures the moment and the determination that we all feel to withstand an onslaught. And so people were just electrified.”
The plan was hatched over the winter amid headline-making book bans in the U.S., including Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic memoir, Maus, which was banned in January by a school board in Tennessee.
Caroline Friesen and Robbie Percy, creative directors at Toronto agency Rethink, approached Penguin Random House with the idea of making an unburnable copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, a frequently banned book.
“The subject matter of The Handmaid’s Tale definitely makes it appropriate; it deals with these issues of censorship and silencing voices,” Mr. Percy says of the dystopian novel set in the Republic of Gilead, formerly the U.S. “And I think with what’s happening in the world right now, things are getting a little more Gileadesque all the time.”
The proposal was presented to the publisher during an early February call.
“I knew Margaret would love the idea because it’s a cause that’s important to her and because she loves mischievous things,” McClelland & Stewart publisher Jared Bland says. He then pitched the idea to Ms. Atwood, who was immediately onboard.
Sotheby’s agreed to auction the book online (it’s being exhibited in person at Sotheby’s New York). The bidding as of Wednesday evening had hit US$65,000; the online auction closes June 7. Funds raised will go to PEN America, per Ms. Atwood’s wish.
“I barely recognize my own country,” Ms. Nossel said in an interview from New York. “I feel like the soul of the nation is at stake. This for us has been disturbing, galvanizing and we’re engaged in it with everything we have.”
The clever concept was one thing. Bringing it to fruition was another.
After Rethink reached out to the Gas Company, Mr. Martin and company owner Mr. Laxdal got to work. “He’s one of those guys that loves solving problems,” Mr. Percy says.
When the flame-retardant paper didn’t work, they landed – after some experimentation – on a non-reflective aluminum foil paper that was painted on both sides. Not only was it unburnable, but it could also be fed through the company’s printer without getting mangled.
The book also needed a cover. They ordered fire-retardant cloth from Amazon. But like the flame-retardant paper, it burned.
They decided to go back to aluminum foil, black this time, for the cover. But they needed material for the board itself. They ended up using phenolic, a substance made to withstand high heat. With the lighter held to it – and one of those little torches you use to make crème brulée – it remained intact.
Next challenge: stitching the book together. Thread, the usual material, would burn. At a craft store, they bought some metal wire – the kind of thing onto which you might string beads to make a bracelet.
Jeremy Martin got to work hand-sewing 16-page portions of the book (called “signatures”) together. Twenty-four signatures were combined along the way to create the 384-page book.
The wire coming off the coil would get little kinks in it and, under a looming deadline – the book needed to get onto a flight to New York the next morning – Mr. Martin struggled to pull it through the holes that were hand-punched during this process.
It took him six-and-a-half hours of sewing. It was 7 p.m. but the book was still not finished; it had to be cut down to size. Things became really tense at this point, Mr. Martin says.
“This was a big, fat book. I had no idea when I put it in that cutter what would happen. It was possible that the clamp pressure would meld it into a brick or it would fall apart,” he recalls.
“So I put it in the cutter and I said a little prayer and I cut it.” Deep breath. “And it cut beautifully.”
The pressure actually improved the look of the book, making it “nice and square,” Mr. Martin says. And when they sheared the edges off the paper, the silver of the foil was exposed. “Automatically gilded edges.”
They added stainless-steel ribbons for decorative head and tail bands – ordered from an electronics supplier, and so cloth-like, they worried it would burn. (It did not.)
The finished book was handed off to Rethink at 10:30 p.m. on May 18, less than 12 hours before Ms. Friesen’s flight to New York. “I wanted to cry,” Mr. Martin says. He took the next morning off.
If anything, the book almost looked too authentic, he says; it was distinguishable from the original only by the silver-page edges. But the weight gives it away.
And there’s one other difference, of course.
“Absolutely nothing in this book is going to burn,” Mr. Martin says. “If you did take a flamethrower to it, there would be some smoking and some smell. But it would still be a readable book.”
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